The Brooklyn side of life

Why do all my walks in Brooklyn seem to end up in BAM? Because there is always something interesting going on there, that’s why; like that discussion with Alec Baldwin for the promotion of his memoir, Nevertheless. As expected, it was a funny, timely, thoughtful and honest account of his life. Thoroughly enjoyable, but I have yet to read the book.

April 9th, 2017

Drawing the line ~ from forgettable to memorable

I’m going back in time. I have to, for if this blog is to continue doubling up as my journal, I can’t be skipping events. Even the not so memorable ones like those two, almost back-to-back performances at BAM.

First, the utterly forgettable performance by Doug Varone and Dancers, emphatically described as: ”Doug Varone and Dancers celebrate 30 years of impassioned choreography with three works representing the past, present, and future of this peerless company.” By the third work I was convinced I’m never watching another Doug Varone performance again. Art is subjective and a matter of chemistry, and unfortunately it didn’t work for me this time.

Next, ”A Nonesuch Celebration, a stellar lineup of musical luminaries” that came together ‘‘for one night only to pay tribute to Bob Hurwitz, who for the past three decades has served as the visionary architect of Nonesuch Records”. I had not heard of Mr Hurwitz before, but the idea of watching live performances by (among others) Pat Metheny, Kronos Quartet, k.d. lang and Mandy Patinkin all in one evening, seemed very appealing. I did enjoy myself but it seemed like the hosts were enjoying themselves much more which made me feel a bit awkward, like crashing a private party.

But then, on 1-2 April, it was time for the annual MoCCA Arts Festival. A multimedia event organised by the Society of Illustrators with workshops, film screenings, exhibitions and panels, MoCCA is Manhattan’s largest independent comics, cartoon and animation festival and my first chance to meet two rather brilliant gentlemen, artists and friends: Blutch in Conversation with David Mazzucchelli – and the weekend couldn’t get any better.

But wait… there’s more! Here come the real superheroes, those early comic book creators from the industry’s early years  (1935-1955), lovingly depicted by their colleague, American cartoonist Drew Friedman in his two recent books Heroes of the Comics and More Heroes of the Comics. 

The Society of Illustrators presented 100 original colour illustrations by the artist, who was also featured as a guest of honour at the MoCCA 2017.

Bernard Krigstein, 1919-1990
He approached comics as a serious art form and his innovative, beautifully composed, almost cinematic use of panels have never been equaled in comics. Following Harvey Kurtzman’s invitation to illustrate one of his EC war stories, Krigstein became a regular contributor to EC, illustrating a total of 47 stories for them, including several pieces for MAD, highlighting his brilliant gift for caricature. 1955’s ”Master Race”, appeared in the debut issue of EC’s ”New Direction” comic Impact and was his masterpiece, a groundbreaking triumph of sequential storytelling.

Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993)
Cartoonist, writer, editor, satirist and teacher, he was the founder and creator of MAD – as well as Trump, Humbug, Help, etc. Along with his long-time partner, cartoonist Will Elder, he spent almost 30 years producing the lushly painted comic strip ”Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy. Kurtzman has had a huge, almost unmeasurable influence on several generations of cartoonists and humorists, among them Robert Crumb and the (Monty) Pythons.

Norman Maurer (1926-1986)
Born in Brooklyn, he started working in comic books while still a teenager. His marriage to Joan Howard, daughter of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, in 1947 kicked-off his lifelong association with the comedy team.

Carl Barks (1901-2000)
His cartoon adventures of Donald Duck were published anonymously for decades. Barks drew the Donald Duck story for the front of Walt Disney’s Comics, the most popular post-War II comic book being published. In 1935 he has hired as a full-time writer at the Disney film studios only to quit in 1942 and become a full-time artist for their comic book line – which included the bimonthly Donald Duck. In his later years, Barks would recreate in oil large paintings of his beloved ducks, some of them now fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars.

William Erwin ”Will” Eisner (1917-2005)
Eisner grew up in the Bronx dreaming of someday becoming a successful cartoonist. In 1936, Eisner’s friend from Dewitt Clinton high school, Bob Kane, suggested he sell some of his cartoons to a new tabloid-sized magazine called WOW, What a Magazine!, edited by cartoonist and letterer Jerry Iger. Although Iger was 12 years older than the 19-year old Eisner, they both clicked. They opened together the Eisner-Iger studio in New York, a mass production comic book factory in 1937. It was a great financial success but Eisner, who was more interested in concentrating on his writing and drawing, would sell his interest in the shop in 1939 to pursue an offer to create a syndicated newspaper comics section of his own. His first 16-page The Spirit insert episode ran in 1940.

William Moulton Marston (1893-1947)
Marston’s relatively short life was filled with fascinating, seemingly at first, unrelated accomplishments. He attended Harvard and received a Ph.D in Psychology, became a teacher and briefly, in 1929, the director of public services for Universal Studios in Hollywood. Marston was also a lawyer and inventor, and is credited as the creator of the Systolic Blood Pressure Test, which would help lead to the invention of the modern Polygraph machine. He also authored several self-help books and was a champion of women’s causes, writing that he was convinced that women were ”more honest and reliable than men, and could work faster and more accurately.” He also recognized and wrote of the ”great educational potential” of the new medium of comic books and in the early forties he was hired by publisher Max Gaines to be an ”educational consultant” for National Periodicals and All-American Publications which would soon merge into DC comics. Marston’s wife Elizabeth gave him the idea to create a female superhero in the then male dominated world of comics; he developed the character ”Suprema” soon called ”Wonder Woman” basing her to an extend on his own wife and her appearance on his polyamorous partner, a former student of his who now lived with the couple in an open marriage, named Olive Byrne.

Whitney Ellsworth (1908-1980)
Writer and artist for DC comics, he became their Hollywood liaison. He had a hands-on role in script and production for the 1951 feature Superman and the Mole Men which led directly to 1952’s The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves.

Joe Shuster (1914-1992) & Jerry Siegel (1914-1996)
They met at 16 at Glendale high school in Cleveland, Ohio. The two young, shy Jewish teenagers discovered they shared much in common, Siegel dreaming of writing science fiction stories for Pulp magazines and the shy, bespectacled Shuster also sharing a love for science fiction and dreaming of working as a Pulp artist. Siegel conceived a superhero character he called ”The Superman” and together with Shuster’s art, began a frustrating four-year quest to get it published as a comic. Another of their characters, Slam Bradley, debuted in National’s Detective Comics #1 in 1937. In 1938 Max Gaines urged National’s new publishers, Harry Donefeld and Jack Liebowitz to publish Superman, and after four years of submissions and rejections, the character finally debuted as the cover feature for National’s Action Comics #1 in June 1938. It was an instant sensation. By endorsing a check for $130 (the total amount of the check was for more than $400, other monies owed to the team was padded on to no doubt make the signing more enticing), assuring them that they would be the primary artist and writer for Superman and the upcoming syndicated Superman newspaper comic, and without any advice from a lawyer, Siegel & Shuster forever signed away all their rights to a character that would soon become one of the most commercially successful and iconic characters of the 20th century.

Bill Finger (1914-1974)

Bob Kane (1915-1988)
He was the controversial artist who posed for almost half a century as the sole creator of Batman. In 1938, after the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster named Superman caused a sensation in Action Comics #1, National sought more super-heroes to add to their roster and Kane soon conceived a character he called ”The Batman”. He showed his flimsy conception drawings to his writer Bill Finger, who he had hired to work for him and Finger suggested specific changes to redesign the character into the now familiar Dark Knight persona. The completed Batman debut finally appeared in Detective Comics #27, in May 1939. It became a hit and was soon starring in his own series, featuring his sidekick ”Robin”, conceived by Finger and artist Jerry Robinson. Kane worked out a cozy deal with National where he would receive sole credit as the writer and artist behind Batman, even though the character was essentially created by Bill Finger

Wally Wood (1927-1981)
“Wally may have been our most troubled artist, but he may have been our most brilliant” – William M. Gaines

Marie Severin (b. 1929)
As EC’s colorist and the only creative woman on staff, and a very moral catholic, she was known for often colouring a particularly gruesome panel dark blue to help tone down the gore. Marie Severin’s older brother John first invited her to work as his colourist at EC in 1949 and soon she was colouring all of their comics, including the notorious horror titles.

Doug  Varone and Dancers, BAM
March 30th, 2017

A Nonesuch Celebration, BAM
April 1st, 2017

MoCCA Arts Festival
April 1st, 2017

887 @ BAM

887 Murray Avenue, Quebec City, Canada.The apartment block where the play’s main – and only – character actually grew up becomes alive, with the help of an incredible off-stage crew, in the form of a giant dollhouse.
Robert Lepage, who also wrote and directed this deeply personal, autobiographical play,  invites us to join him on a journey into the realm of memory. On the way, he revisits his childhood home; shares anecdotes about his friends and family; commemorates names of parks, streets and monuments – places often forgotten or no longer noticed; recalls Charles De Gaulle’s call for a Free Quebec, the time he famously ended his July 24, 1967 speech with a loud and clear ”Vive le Québec libre!”, in Montreal.

The same words that were used as a slogan by Front de Libération du Québec, the separatist group that had launched a series of terror attacks in 1963, a campaign that culminated with the kidnapping and killing of Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte, in October 1970.
The trip starts with a struggle: Lepage is invited to recite ”Speak White”, a poem by the Quebecoise Michèle Lalonde, in an evening commemorating the anniversary of a poetry event that first took place in Montreal, in 1970. But, for reasons that he cannot explain, the more he tries to memorize the worlds, the more they elude him. 

So he turns to the method of loci, an ancient technique in which the items to be remembered are placed in specific places (”palace rooms”) one associates with past experiences or childhood memories. In order to retrieve them, all Lepage had to do was revisit the right ”palace room”. And we were only too happy to follow him along.

”Speak White” refers to the oppressive orders shouted at the enslaved across North American plantations, forbidding them to speak their own languages, incomprehensible to their masters. ”Speak White” was also used to shame francophone Canadians and force them to adopt the language of the British Empire.
The ”palace room” method worked; in the end, Lepage did recite the poem and it was powerful, emotional – flawless. Ironically, the most compelling performance we’d seen thus far in New York was by a francophone Canadian, translated into English.

Speak White by Michèle Lalonde: original in French and translation in English.

Speak white
Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy

We know that liberty is a black word
Just as poverty is black
And just as blood mixes with dust in the streets of Algiers
And Little Rock

All images by Erick Labbé.

887 @ BAM

March 25th, 2017

Dadan @ BAM

In order to create Dadan, I started rehearsals with the performers in the summer of 2007.  At that time we had no idea that we would create a piece like this. If a group of men who just wanted to strike the drums would gather and practice intensely, a performance would come out of that energy.

So we told ourselves.

As for the name of the piece, we didn’t have any assurance that we could complete it in the future. But fortunately, in 2009 we were able to create this work called Dadan, and show it to the public.

The word Dadan is written with the kanji characters that literally mean “men drumming,” but at the same time we tried to come up with a name which would put across the sense of drumming when written in roman letters, would feel dynamic, and be easy for people around the world to say.

Dadan saw its world premiere in Tokyo during September 2009, and the success of this initial run led to its foreign debut at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, France, with four sold-out performances in 2012.

Following such success abroad, Dadan toured across Japan in 2012 and was showcased twice at the “Earth Celebration” annual international performing arts festival on Sado Island. Tours in Spain and France followed during 2014, and then in October 2015, Dadan was performed in Hong Kong—a first in Asia outside of Japan. The South American debut took place in March of 2016 in Brazil. 

The 2017 Dadan performances are part of its first North American tour, and are presented as a part of Kodo’s 35th Anniversary celebrations. For Dadan’s US tour, I would like to express my gratitude to the sponsors who made this possible. I hope to be able to continue to create even better performances in the future. I will be very happy if you enjoy our performance.

—Tamasaburo Bando, Dadan Artistic Director

Never has drumming seemed so elegant, flawlessly coordinated, primal, powerful, precise and curiously meditative, until these guys came along.

*first three images from the net

Kodo performed in BAM
March 4th, 2017

The play that never was

Three old friends and a neighbor. A summer of afternoons in the backyard. Lingering sunshine and inevitable darkness.

Caryl Churchill, one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights, returns to BAM for the first time in 15 years with this by-turns hilarious and unsettling daydream. Directed by Churchill’s frequent collaborator James Macdonald (Cloud Nine; Love and Information; John Gabriel Borkman, Spring 2011), with startling performances from Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, and June Watson, Escaped Alone is doomsday in a teapot, a calmly revolutionary vision of looming collapse.

No, doomsday in a teapot was not meant to be that Saturday evening. The play had already begun and Mrs Jarrett – played by the courageous Mrs Linda Bassett – had already joined the three other ladies in the garden that sat behind the fence. But, as the conversation picked up, Mrs Bassett stood up and walked off stage, calmly, naturally as if it was part of the play. Only Mrs Bassett had been feeling unwell that day but had decided to go on with the show hoping she would manage to make it through. She didn’t, despite her strong will and professionalism; Mrs Bassett could not go on. And neither could the show.

The management offered refunds or rebookings to one of the following days and the play went ahead as scheduled. We missed it only because of a planned trip, our first away from the City since the day we arrived.

Escaped Alone, BAM
February 18th, 2017

Last Work

What we didn’t want to miss that night was the latest work by Batsheva Dance Company, choreographed by Ohad Naharin, making its NY premiere in BAM. I was prepared to be impressed and I was – by the dancer at the back of the stage running on a treadmill for the entire duration of the show! According to reviews, and as you can see below, it was supposed to be a woman (dressed in blue) but on the evening we watched she had been replaced by a man. Still standing, drenched in sweat at the end of the performance, he deserved – and received – a warm round of applause. The work itself was a barrage of beautiful, intense moves and ideas, so much so that the audience was left with no breathing space; no chance to absorb and truly appreciate the scenes. On the way out, we agreed that Last Work was aesthetically stimulating, but bringing so many elements and people on the stage together, all at the same time, resulted in cancelling out emotions it was supposed to evoke. Indeed sometimes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Images courtesy of Batsheva Dance Company

February 4th, 2017

Beauty queens

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a black comedy by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was premiered by the Druid Theatre Company in Galway, Ireland in 1996.

20+ years later, Druid made its BAM debut with this first in the trilogy of plays set in the rural village of Leenane where forty-year-old Maureen Folan, a single and lonely woman lives with her mother Mag, trapped in a dry, loveless relationship. Until Mag interferes with her daughter’s first – and probably last – romance. Her cruel interference sets in motion a chain of events simultaneously funny and horrible, a narrative that leads to a tragicomic climax and leaves the audience with a bittersweet aftertaste that lingers long after the curtain comes down.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, about to begin:

And the Beauty Queen of Solitaire, patiently killing time:

Aisling O’Sullivan played Maureen, the daughter.
Marie Mullen, was the devious mother; most interestingly, Ms. Mullen played Maureen back in 1996, as if to confirm Maureen’s realisation when she exclaimed: Oh Gosh, I’ve turned into my mother!
Marty Rea was Pato Dooley, Maureen’s first and possibly last lover.

BAM Harvey Theater

January 14th, 2017

Letter to a Man

Letter to a Man is the third collaboration between two icons from the world of performing arts – Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I had the privilege to enjoy all three, in three different corners of the world.

Video Portraits came first in 2013; hosted by Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens Greece, it was an audiovisual feat unlike anything we’d seen before – in that part of the world, at least. A few months later and some three thousand kilometres north of Greece The Old Woman came to town, with William Dafoe joining the party in deSingel, Antwerp’s centre of contemporary arts. And, finally, three years later, a performance at the source, with Letter to a Man marking our initiation to the theatre world of New York at BAM, Brooklyn’s leading performing arts venue. We didn’t know it then but BAM would become a regular ”hangout” where we would enjoy many an entertaining weekend night out.

Letter to a Man is based on autobiographical texts by Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), with extracts from his diaries, written in less than six weeks in 1919 when Nijinsky was already succumbing to madness and trying to record and understand what was happening to him.

In Robert Wilson’s play, each passage is repeated many times in English and in Russian by Mikhail Baryshnikov alone on the set, assisted only by Wilson’s masterfully minimalist – yet grandiose – mise-en-scène on which light, sound, props, movement and text are all of equal importance; and staged to perfection by the Director himself.

Now, I will readily admit I had never been a great fan of Baryshnikov, tilting toward the ethereal grand jeters of the likes of Nureyev rather than the solid, precise movements of Mikhail. Despite his extraordinary leaps, which apparently were higher than Rudolf’s, Baryshnikov always gave me the impression that he was somehow heavier, earthbound.  And I have to take Nijinsky’s brilliance as an establish fact, since none of his performances were ever recorded.

But watching Baryshnikov alone on the stage channelling a lifetime’s worth of earthbound precision, mastering choreography and pantomime, being almost seventy years old and unstoppable, the least I can do is concede admiration. For Baryshnikov rendered Nijinsky’s descent to insanity with the brio and gentleness, compassion and deep understanding, as only another great dancer could.

This is how it began:

”I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law,” he repeats several times while confined to a straitjacket.

”I am a beast, a predator. I will practice masturbation and spiritualism. I will eat everyone I can get hold of. I will stop at nothing.”

”I am God’s plan, and not the Antichrist’s. I am not the Antichrist. I am Christ.”

Letter to a Man, BAM, October 2016.

It will run in Barcelona on 29 June – 02 July 2017. Details for this and other productions can be found on Robert Wilson’s website.

Photo credits: all, except the last two, photos are by Lucie Jansch.

October 23rd, 2016